Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach congestion worsens, labor talks escalate –
Truck drivers wait for the California United Terminal to open at the Port of Long Beach. Some companies say they are waiting hours to receive cargo. File photo
By Karen Robes Meeks, LA Daily News
POSTED: 11/08/14, 1:30 PM PST |
As he drove from terminal after terminal at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Dick Schroeder pointed to the winding lines of trucks that often stretched for miles as drivers wait more than five hours to receive one cargo container.
Schroeder, who runs Ohana Transportation in Wilmington, once sent eight trucks to retrieve cargo and all returned empty-handed six or seven hours later. Work slowdowns are to blame for the congestion, which he says has become progressively worse in the last few weeks.
“They’re still working without a contract,” Schroeder said of the longshore workers, whose agreement expired in July. “I’ve been here over 50 years doing this, and I’ve been through four or five strikes down here. I’ve never seen anything this bad.”
After months of promises to keep cargo flow moving amid negotiations, talks between the union representing about 13,000 West Coast longshore workers and the association representing their employers have escalated this week with accusations of work slowdowns up and down the West Coast ports.
The Pacific Maritime Association is accusing the International Longshore and Warehouse Union of deliberately slowing work to gain bargaining leverage.
Earlier this week, the association said ILWU crane operators in Washington state are moving cargo at half-speed. Then on Thursday, PMA said it was told by the union that it would not dispatch qualified ILWU crane operators who could place containers on trucks and trains as of Nov. 3.
The four affected ports — Los Angeles, Long Beach, Seattle and Tacoma — handle nearly 80 percent of containerized cargo on the West Coast.
“After six months of negotiations, during which a tentative agreement was reached on maintaining health benefits, the ILWU has resorted to its old playbook of slowdowns in order to leverage the employers at the bargaining table,” said PMA spokesperson Wade Gates. “We were hopeful that the ILWU’s promises of normal cargo operations during negotiations would prove true — and until last week, they did. Now, they reneged on that agreement.”
The ILWU went on the defensive, accusing PMA of smearing the union and deflecting responsibility from a growing congestion problem at the ports.
“PMA’s press statement dishonestly accuses the ILWU of breaking a supposed agreement ‘that normal operations at West Coast ports would continue until an agreement could be reached.’ This is a bold-faced lie,” according to a statement by the ILWU. “No such agreement was ever made, nor could it be made given the parties’ historic disagreement regarding the definition of ‘normal operations’ — a disagreement that has been the subject of arbitrations for decades.”
The union also called out PMA’s alleged “pressure tactics,” which have included attempting to secretly move thousands of chassis away from longshore workers who traditionally handled and maintained them and not bargaining over a training program for longshore workers.
“Worker frustration is growing,” said ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees, who could not confirm PMA’s statement that the union would not dispatch qualified crane operators.
He added that other factors have been to blame for the congestion, such as the availability of chassis and drivers.
“There’s been an underlying problem with congestion that’s been ignored by employers and the industry for years,” he said.
Congestion at the ports has worsened considerably in the past several weeks, as bigger ships carrying more goods arrive more frequently and the number of chassis, or trailers that hitch onto trucks to tow containers, have become scarce after carriers shifted the responsibility of maintaining chassis to other operators.
Customers nationally have been complaining about shipment delays as containers stacked six boxes high remain in yards and container ships remain at sea waiting for berths. According to the Marine Exchange of Southern California, six container ships and four break-bulk vessels remained at anchor in the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbor as of Friday morning. A dozen more container vessels are expected to arrive this weekend at the twin ports.
The Agriculture Transportation Coalition shared the story on a family-owned Washington state fruit exporter who has been unable to load nearly $150,000 worth of produce onto ships.
“We have been holding $66,668.00 of product that is supposed to ship in two containers on a carrier and $82,188.50 of product for three containers on another carrier all week,” the exporter said. “These products all need to make the voyage to South American markets in time for their holidays. If they do not ship, we will lose the sales entirely as my customers cannot sell what they do not have and no one gets a second swing at fresh produce, unlike durable goods.”
In a letter to President Barack Obama, a coalition representing U.S. manufacturers, farmers, wholesalers, retailers, importers, exporters, and transportation and logistics providers urged the president to step in and stop ongoing interruptions at West Coast port terminal operations.
“We believe immediate action is necessary, and the federal government’s use of all of its available options would be helpful in heading off a shutdown and keeping the parties at the negotiating table,” the letter said.
This includes employing the use of a federal mediator and exercising the authority granted under the Taft-Hartley Act should a strike or lockout occur.
Since May, the ILWU and PMA have been working toward a contract that would cover about 13,000 longshore workers along the West Coast. Until recently, talks have been low-key and details to the media have been scant.
“The sudden change in tone is alarming and suggests that a full shutdown of every West Coast port may be imminent,” according to the letter. “The impact this would have on jobs, down-stream consumers, and the business operations of exporters, importers, retailers, transportation providers, manufacturers, and other stakeholders would be catastrophic.”